(Amman, October 8, 2008) - Jordan should end routine and widespread torture in its prisons, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch called on the government to overhaul mechanisms for investigating, disciplining and prosecuting abusers, and in particular to transfer prosecutor's investigations into prison abuse from police to civilian prosecutors.
The 95-page report, "Torture and Impunity in Jordan's Prisons: Reforms Fail to Tackle Widespread Abuse," documents credible allegations of ill-treatment, often amounting to torture, from 66 out of 110 prisoners interviewed at random in 2007 and 2008, and in each of the seven of Jordan's 10 prisons visited. Human Rights Watch's evidence suggests that five prison directors personally participated in torturing detainees.
"Torture in Jordan's prison system is widespread even two years after King Abdullah called for reforms to stop it once and for all," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The mechanisms for preventing torture by holding torturers accountable are simply not working."
The most common forms of torture include beatings with cables and sticks and the suspension by the wrists from metal grates for hours at a time, during which guards flog a defenseless prisoner. Prison guards also torture prisoners for perceived infractions of prison rules. Human Rights Watch found evidence that at times Islamists accused or convicted of crimes against national security (Tanzimat) were punished en masse.
Prison officials say beatings and other ill-treatment are isolated incidents and that a prison reform program initiated in 2006 is improving prison conditions and accountability for abuse. Human Rights Watch's research shows that while the reform program may well be improving the chief areas of its focus - health services, overcrowding, visitation, and recreation facilities - impunity for physical abuse remains the norm.
In October 2007, an amendment to the Penal Code made torture a crime for the first time, and in early 2008, the Public Security Directorate (PSD) assigned prosecutors to investigate abuses at seven prisons. But to date there have been no prosecutions under that law.
In February 2008, the PSD allowed the National Center for Human Rights to set up an office inside Swaqa prison. However, critical reporting about a prison riot there in April 2008 led the PSD to stop its cooperation with the center.
"Jordan has made some attempts to address the problem of torture in prison, but the bottom line is that the measures have been insufficient, and torture persists as a consequence," Whitson said.
Two separate incidents involving the torture and abuse of large groups of detainees highlight failures in accountability. Despite extensive evidence that guards in Juwaida and Swaqa prisons tortured Islamist prisoners following a successful escape by two Islamist prisoners from Juwaida in June 2007, the Jordanian authorities failed to launch any investigation. In a third incident, the PSD, which directs security agencies including the prison service, did launch an extensive investigation into events surrounding the prison riot and fire on April 14, 2008 at Muwaqqar prison that left three prisoners dead. The investigators did not prosecute a guard who prisoners alleged had tortured some of them just prior to the fire, included some who died in it. An independent non-judicial investigation by the National Center for Human Rights found ill-treatment at the heart of the prison riot. Despite this evidence, the investigation concluded that no official had done anything wrong.
Part of the problem lies in the authority of prison officials to discipline internally, which is used as way of avoiding formal prosecution of torturers. For example, in 2007, while the PSD investigated 19 allegations of torture across Jordan, referring six to court for prosecution, the directors of three prisons, Muwaqqar, Qafqafa, and Swaqa, told Human Rights Watch that they had internally disciplined six guards for abuse without involving the PSD. Prison directors in Jordan have authority to settle abuse cases as "misdemeanors," including ill-treatment, without resorting to the Police Court.
"The PSD's reluctance to prosecute and punish torturers within its ranks stems from a misguided desire to preserve the reputation of the prison service," Whitson said. "Instead, protecting guards who torture from prosecution tarnishes the image of the entire profession, including those guards who fulfill their duties without resorting to torture and abuse of prisoners."
Furthermore, Human Rights Watch pointed out that it is police prosecutors and police judges who are responsible for investigating, prosecuting and trying their fellow officers for prison abuses, including torture, in the Police Court. Grievances officials, who investigate prison abuses, referred cases for prosecutions only in a small number of cases where there was overwhelming evidence.
Even where the government has prosecuted some egregious cases of torture, the Police Court's verdicts have been flawed. In one case, the Police Court sentenced former Swaqa prison director Majid al-Rawashda to a fine of JOD 120 (around US$180) for ordering and participating in the beating of 70 prisoners in August 2007. The court found 12 other guards who had participated in the beatings not guilty because they were "following orders." The court sentenced prison guards who had beaten Firas Zaidan to death in Aqaba prison in May 2007 to two-and-a-half years in prison. The court also reduced to two-and-a-half years the sentence of guards who had beaten Abdullah Mashaqba to death in Juwaida prison in 2004 because they were "in the prime of their youth."
"The police and prison service cannot credibly investigate itself," said Whitson. "Civilian prosecutors and judges should take over all investigations of prison abuse to end impunity for torturers and begin to provide redress for victims of torture."
Since beginning its prison reform program in 2006, Jordan has sought international advice on improving prison conditions. The New York-based Kerik Group provided training and advised on prison management, equipment, and new construction, including a super-maximum security prison with 240 solitary confinement-only cells to be opened in late 2008. Currently, Austria's Ministry of Justice is in an EU-sponsored "twinning project" with the PSD to reform the penitentiary system.
Human Rights Watch calls on Jordan's donors to address the widespread torture, and to condition part of their assistance on the establishment of independent investigation and prosecution mechanisms.